Northwest Passage, Part Nine

Herbert Sakalaucks

Bay of Biscay, March 1634

Two days into the voyage and habits were already forming. Meals were done in shifts, with the men usually eating last. Aboard the Grande Dame, Pierre Marion stood in line with a pail and bag to collect the evening meal for the group he ate with. He watched the cook serve out the helpings, one piece of meat and bread for every diner in a group. Captain de Bussy had laid down strict rules that anyone trying to steal an extra serving would be put on half-rations for a week. Fellow passengers made sure the rule was followed.

Rough tables were set up outside the cabins and each table had a bucket to draw the meat ration. Pierre ate with the five other men who made up the informal leadership for the La Chaume passengers. This was his meal to get the pail of pork and the bag of bread. As he leaned against the bulkhead waiting his turn, he could feel a hum from the ship’s rigging transmitted throughout the frame of the ship. The tension on the rigging from the wind sounded like the ship was singing. It wasn’t the only tension on board. As he watched the people on deck, it was evident that it was not a happy ship. The announcement, as they sailed, that passengers would be charged for the voyage from the money promised for the purchase of their land had left many passengers seething with resentment. The captain had posted sentries throughout the ship as a precaution.

“How many?” Pierre’s reverie was interrupted by the cook. It was his turn. The ladle was poised to serve up the pork. “Hurry up, I don’t have all day.”

The scowl brought a hurried “Six,” from Pierre. At lunch, one group went hungry when they angered the cook. Life would be miserable for a week if Pierre caused George to miss his meal. The cook dropped five pieces into the bucket and passed over a full loaf of bread. The cook gave a snort, “Enjoy the bread, it’s the last fresh thing you’ll get this trip. From here on it’s strictly biscuits”

Pierre didn’t budge and held out his bucket. “That was only five pieces, I said six!”

“Don’t get in a dither. One piece was bigger than the rest. It counts as two. Now if you want extras, they’ll cost you.”

Pierre looked at the meat. One was slightly larger than the rest, but two were smaller. The sly look on the cook’s face gave away the game. If he could skimp on the servings, he could sell the leftovers and no one would be the wiser. It was going to be a long voyage so Pierre made up his mind quickly to stop the scam now. He crowded the cook and said, “The captain said no lying about portions, or we’d be on half-rations. Maybe I should call the officer on watch and see what happens to a cook who shorts a passenger?” Although a head shorter than the cook, he shoved the bucket into the cook’s gut to emphasize his point.

The cook backed off and quickly served up another piece of meat. “No need for that. It’s a long voyage and the captain wants everyone treated equally.” The watch officer was staring at the group to see if trouble was imminent.

Pierre decided that he didn’t need to be identified as a troublemaker by the officer so he simply added a last, quiet, comment. “More like the cook wants to skim a little extra for himself. I’m going to pass the word so folks watch you closer.” Pierre glanced back over his shoulder as he headed down the ladder to the cabin where his friends waited for their meal. The officer had returned to his previous work. As he reached the bottom, he stumbled over the step that wasn’t there. The gloom down below was a sharp contrast to the evening sun. He got his bearings from the argument still going on at his table. He passed a sentry on the way. It was one of Captain Reneuf’s men. He paused to chat, but one whiff of the pork and the sentry turned green, stuffed a hand over his mouth and raced up the ladder. Even down below, Pierre could hear the faint sounds of someone getting violently sick over the ship’s side. He walked over to the table and set the bucket and bread down.

Phillipe pointed with his knife in the direction the sentry had left. “What did you do to that boy? One look at you and he ran off.!”

“I think it’s more like he hasn’t got his sea legs and he smelled the pork,” Pierre laughed, but then turned serious. “We need to watch the cook. He tried to short me some meat and wanted a bribe to make it up.”

Phillipe slammed his knife into the tabletop. “Just like I was saying! Those stinking thieves need to have something done to stop them. If we don’t, we’ll all be bond servants by the time we land!”

“I know what you think, Phillipe. So does most of the ship.” Pierre pointed to the vacant spot where the sentry had stood. “You keep up your loud complaining and someone’s going to report you. Maybe they even have already. Reneuf’s a good enough sort that he might overlook it. Most others won’t.” He waved toward the sentry’s previous location. “Why do you think he’s here? The captain’s worried that something might happen.”

“And if it does, so what? We Huguenots have always had to fight for our rights. There’s enough of us on this ship to do what needs doing. Or are you scared?” Phillipe tried to stare Pierre down.

“You’re a fool. The captain’s word is law on a ship. What you’re hinting at could be called mutiny. The answer for that is a rope. Even if we initially succeeded, there’s still the rest of the fleet. We’ll get through this trouble. They can’t get any worse. Just wait until we land.” Pierre pulled out a short knife and started to serve out the meat. “With all the land where we’re going, it will be easy to practice our customs without someone watching our every move.” Phillipe sat down, but still kept grumbling. Pierre noticed though, that when the sentry returned, his friend kept his voice low.

****

Captain de Bussy’s problems had just gotten worse. Bishop de Perpignan sat in front of him waiting for an answer to his request. De Bussy toyed with a writing quill and knife trying to find a way out from the dilemma the bishop had presented him. As a good Catholic, he could not deny the bishop’s request to hold a mass each Sunday. As a ship’s captain, it was the last thing he wanted to do. With a ship full of Huguenots, only a few of the ship’s crew would attend mass voluntarily. The bishop knew that and was pressing for forced attendance. With tensions already running high, it could be the trigger for a mutiny among the passengers. With a sigh, he placed the quill and knife back in the desk drawer and squared his shoulders. He was responsible for the whole ship and his own soul. He would imitate Solomon and divide the baby. “Your Grace, I will allow a sermon, but it will be done before I hold my weekly talk with the crew and passengers. There will not be enough time for a complete mass. That is the best I can do.”

“Captain, I must protest! The heretics must be made to attend a full service. I demand you let me hold a full mass!” De Perpignan was a firm believer in the principles of the Inquisition, and secular issues held little merit in his view.

De Bussy stood up and glared at the bishop. His answer was measured, with barely suppressed rage. “Your Grace, on this ship, I am the only person that may demand anything! Be satisfied with what you’ve been given. This is the second time you’ve been told. Once more and you will regret the result. You may go.” He rang a small bell and his clerk appeared. “Escort the bishop to his cabin!” The clerk gently took de Perpignan by the elbow and showed him out. He had heard the entire exchange. By the next morning, the entire ship knew what the bishop planned.

When Sunday morning arrived, the settlers and crew gathered for the captain’s speech. The seas were running high and held the promise of a coming storm. Many of the settlers remained below, with seasickness as their excuse. Some of the children frolicked on deck, enjoying the limited freedom. Captain de Bussy stood on the aftercastle, trying to gauge the temperament of the crowd gathered below. In his twenty years of sailing, he’d never had a hint of mutiny aboard a ship he commanded. Today he had his doubts. He’d posted extra idlers at the stern, out of sight from the crowd gathered below, just in case of trouble. Other ships in the fleet had reported minor problems, but his Grande Dame was far and away the most troubled. He heard a commotion forward and saw the basis for most of his problems pushing through the crowd in full priestly raiment. The fool just couldn’t recognize the seriousness of the situation! The richly appointed Catholic garb was sure to anger the Huguenots. At least his two priests following him were dressed plainly. He nodded to his bosun. The squeal of the pipes brought everyone’s attention aft.

De Bussy stepped up to the railing. “It’s always been a tradition on my ships that I addressed the entire company on the first Sunday of the month. We are sailing to a new land, where a fresh start awaits all of the settlers in the fleet. We are crowded on all the ships, but with three commonsense rules, we should all reach the new land safely. First, any order from a ship’s officer must be obeyed without question. They have years of experience at sea and know what’s best in any situation. Second, food and water are sufficient for the voyage, but must not be wasted. What we have must last! And third, follow the eleven commandments.” He paused, waiting for the inevitable question.

One of the settlers in back called out. “Eleven, I thought there were ten?”

“You have the ten Moses gave and then I added the eleventh. Thou shalt not get drunk! Any disorderly conduct from drinking shall be punished with ten strokes of the lash. Are there any other questions?” He hurried along, hoping to forestall any complaints. “I will give everyone a chance to air grievances each Sunday morning before the midday meal. Just report to my cabin and let my clerk know what you need to speak about. I will take his report and then speak with you.” By this time the bishop had joined him at the railing. “We will now have a short service by Bishop de Perpignan to request our Lord’s protection on this long voyage.”

A low rumble started from the crowd. Pastor Bigeault called for quiet. The angry rumbles subsided but were replaced by conversations. The bishop glared, but launched into the service he had planned. The rising wind drowned out much of his words. After ten minutes of unintelligible half-heard Latin, Elie turned to Francois and, in a low voice, suggested that he bring Champion up for some fresh air and exercise. “There might not be another chance for a while. The weather looks like we might have a storm coming.” Francois was overjoyed at the prospect and raced below. The bishop was now into a sermon in French and caught the crowd’s attention.

His comments on heretics and the Lord’s judgment of them brought catcalls from the crowd. He ignored them and continued, “The Lord said that he will lift up the just in his hand. But the evil ones he will cast down into the bottomless pit,” and then paused for effect. Pastor Bigeault cocked his head to one side at that. It wasn’t quite how he remembered how the verse went, but maybe something had been lost in translation. The bishop continued, “He will cause . . .”

He had stopped and was staring at something at the rear of the crowd. Francois had just emerged from below with Champion, the big white dog he and Elie had rescued on the road to La Rochelle. The bishop did a passable imitation of a fish out of water. Then he regained his voice and cried out. “Someone stop that thief!” He pointed toward Francois. Everyone just stood there. Some had been dozing and thought it was part of the sermon. Others thought he had lost his place. The bishop then grabbed the nearby bosun and shoved him down the stairs toward Francois. “Arrest that boy. He stole my dog!” As the bosun slowly realized what the bishop meant, he started to head toward Francois. Elie quickly stepped through the crowd to block his path. The bishop hobbled down the stairs after the bosun, followed closely by Captain de Bussy. Elie shielded Francois and Champion from the bosun and stood his ground. The crowd closed in and things began to look ugly.

De Bussy pulled the few sailors in the crowd away. His worst fears were coming to life. He had seconds before a fight would start. He grabbed the bishop by his collar and hauled him back, yelling as he did, “Stand fast! No one here arrests anyone without my permission. And this pig-” He shook the bishop. “-has no right at all!”

Using the bishop as a battering ram, he forced his way through the crowd to where Elie and Francois stood with Champion. He released the bishop and demanded, “What is the story here?” He pointed to Elie to start.

“The boy found the dog trapped in some bushes outside La Rochelle. He’d been there for some time and was nearly dead. I crawled in and freed the dog. He’s been with me since. We asked around when we arrived and no one knew anything about him. Ask Captain Reneuf, he was there when we arrived.”

Reneuf was across the deck, but yelled out that what Elie said was correct. The captain turned to the bishop. “And your side?”

De Perpignan drew himself up and straightened his vestments. “That is my dog. There was an accident on the road to La Rochelle and the dog disappeared. The boy must have taken him. I was injured and couldn’t track him down.” He reached to grab Champion. With a low growl, the dog threatened to take off the hand. The bishop drew back to strike the dog with his cane.

Elie clamped a hand on the arm and said softly, “You strike that dog and I’ll impale you with that cane.”

The bishop turned to de Bussy. “Are you going to allow this heretic to abuse me like this? I have friends in high places!”

De Bussy took a deep breath to calm the fury he felt before he answered. “I’ve told you twice before that I am the supreme authority on this ship and warned you what would happen if you violated that again. The boy is no thief. If the dog’s any judge, you have more to answer for. The boy keeps the dog. Your actions and reputation make me question why I should remain a Catholic.” He turned to the bosun. “Escort His Eminence to his cabin and see that he remains there.” He stepped up on a hatch cover to be seen and heard by the crowd. “I apologize for the disgraceful behavior of this churchman. You will not be bothered by him again. Disperse and prepare for the meal.” He waved the cook over. “Mister Gilbert, everyone who wants gets an extra portion of meat with their meal.” A cheer went up from those close enough to hear. The news spread quickly throughout the rest of the ship.

****

While the atmosphere on the ship improved, the weather rapidly worsened. De Bussy was kept busy for some time before he could go below and confront the bishop. He had the bishop brought to his cabin, along with the two priests. When de Perpignan started to protest his treatment, de Bussy seized him by the collar and slammed him into a chair. One of the priests made a move to intervene, but one look from de Bussy squelched the intention immediately. De Bussy planted himself in the bishop’s face and laid into him. “I don’t care who your patron is! Your thoughtless actions today nearly caused a mutiny. I warned you what would happen if you usurped my authority again!” The bishop shifted in the chair, but the captain shoved him back down. “You are confined to your cabin for the remainder of the voyage. The only times you can leave are to answer nature’s call and one hour on deck for exercise each day. You will speak to no one during that hour. Your priests will bring you your meals and will be your only visitors. Now get out of my sight!”

Father Brussard helped the bishop from the chair and gave him support to hobble back to his cabin. Father Valmont stopped and spoke briefly to de Bussy before leaving. “Please don’t judge your church by his example. All men are fallible.”

De Bussy sighed, “I know, Father, but there are too many like him. Please see that he follows the rules. I don’t enjoy doing this.”

“I will. Just watch the other. He’s cut from the same cloth.”

Rather than going to his cabin, de Perpignan asked Father Brussard to escort him on deck for some fresh air. “I’m not sure if we’ll have a chance to do this for a few days. Even a landsman like me can see a storm’s brewing. Besides, it may be the last chance we have to talk without someone eavesdropping on us.” As they walked they discussed what could be done about de Bussy’s edict.

Father Brussard endured the bishop’s complaints for sometime before finally interjecting, “Your Grace, I am in contact with Monsieur Mousnier. Perhaps he can plead your case to Admiral Duquesne and have the edict revoked.” Brussard was less than forthcoming on his relationship with Mousnier. He had reached an understanding with Mousnier prior to sailing to expand his church responsibilities into secular areas once they made landfall. As Gaston’s sole agent with the fleet, de Perpignan was isolated and virtually powerless. Brussard hoped to exploit that situation to his advantage. If he could get the bishop indebted to him, it would further strengthen his position.

After an hour pacing the aftercastle, de Perpignan asked Brussard to give him some time to meditate alone.

“Certainly, Your Grace. If you need me during the evening, just call, and I’ll be there.” As Brussard descended the ladder, a wave broke over the bow and sluiced down the deck. He had to grab hold of the railing to keep from being swept off his feet. He thought about warning the bishop about the slickness of the steps, but reconsidered. It would sound too much like a nagging wife, and the bishop was already vexed enough. He waited until the water receded and then made his way to his cabin.

De Perpignan remained on the aftercastle, leaning on his cane and contemplated what had befallen him that day. The two seamen manning the whipstaff left him to his thoughts. The seas continued to build and presented a stark picture of God’s power. The symbolism was lost on the bishop as he seethed about his ill-treatment by the captain. Down on the main deck, a few hardy passengers braved the elements to get some fresh air. Down below, most of the passengers were regretting the extra portions they’d eaten earlier. Eventually, only two men remained on deck. They had been fishermen in their youth and were enjoying the evening.

De Perpignan finally tired of the relentless waves and decided to turn in. He hobbled across the deck and started to descend the ladder. Just then, the ship lurched as it sank into a deeper trough. His grip on the railing slipped and he was pitched onto the ship’s rail. He still held his cane and couldn’t get a grip with his free hand.

Across the deck the two passengers saw his plight. As the younger one started to go to the bishop’s aid, the older man held him back. “Didn’t you listen to the sermon today? He made a big deal that the Lord would raise up the righteous. Since he seems to think he’s so righteous, he should have no problem raising himself back on deck.”

The bishop’s struggles caused him to slide further overboard. The only thing holding him was a large splinter that had caught on his stole. As the two watched, the splinter broke and the bishop plunged headfirst overboard without a sound. “Well, I guess he wasn’t as righteous as he thought he was. That was definitely a downward direction. The devil seems to have taken his own.” With that, the two decided to retire before someone noticed the bishop’s absence.

The next morning, after breakfast, Father Valmont went to the bishop’s cabin to see how he was feeling. The seas were still running high, with a near gale force wind. Many of the settlers were below decks, sick in their hammocks. He assumed the bishop was suffering from mal de mere too. He was shocked to find the cabin empty, the cot unused. He immediately went to Father Brussard’s small cabin to see if the bishop might have stayed there overnight. Brussard was awake but under the weather. He was also alone. Valmont grabbed him and pulled him to the door. “The bishop is missing!” Brussard shook his head in confusion. Valmont dragged him across the hall and showed him the empty cabin. “We must notify the captain and have him organize a search.” Brussard fumbled on a pair of slippers and then followed Father Valmont to the captain’s cabin. His thoughts were centered on how soon he could be assigned to the bishopric office.

De Bussy was seated at his desk, updating his daily log when Father Valmont knocked. He set down his quill, after wiping it dry and answered, “Come in!” He was surprised by Valmont’s appearance. “Not bad news, I hope.”

“I don’t know. The bishop is missing! His bed is unslept in and neither Brussard nor I have seen him since we retired to our quarters last night.” Brussard arrived just then and his nod confirmed Valmont’s statement. His green tinge showed that the bishop wasn’t his highest priority at the moment.

De Bussy rang for his clerk. “Summon the officers. It seems the bishop is missing. Have the watch officer summon the off duty watches.” After the clerk left, he spoke to both priests quietly. “I’ll have the ship searched completely, but I hold little hope. He may be sick or injured someplace.” After a pause he finished the thought, “Or his body is someplace out of sight. Though it’s more likely he went overboard in the storm.

“I’ll have the crew look for signs on what happened. After yesterday’s incident, it’s possible foul play is involved. I’ll question anyone who may have been involved or seen something.”

Two hours later, after a search that left no area unchecked, the only sign found was a small shred of cloth on the ship’s rail. It appeared to have been caught on a splinter and ripped off a cloth similar in color to the cape the bishop had been wearing. The two helmsmen were questioned intensively, but all they could remember was that the bishop had spent some time on deck with Father Brussard. They remembered the priest leaving by himself, and the bishop remaining by the railing, staring out at the seas. They thought he left a short time later and they heard and saw nothing afterward. The passengers were questioned. The two that had witnessed the accident swore they heard nothing while on deck. No one asked if they had seen anything. De Bussy suspected one of the settlers may have had something to do with the disappearance, but the physical evidence of the cloth seemed to point toward an accident. Since nothing could be proven either way, de Bussy opted for the less controversial answer.

That evening, after supper, the two priests held a brief memorial service for the Bishop de Perpignan. Only the captain and the off-duty officers attended.

The next day, de Bussy rendezvoused with Admiral Duquesne’s ship and had himself rowed over to deliver the news in person. The admiral shrugged the news off. “I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did. From what you say, if he’d been on my ship, I would have heaved him overboard myself. With the injuries he had, an accident is quite likely. You did all you can do. Just make sure to write up a detailed report that I can send to the cardinal when I get a chance. There’s no hurry. We have weeks before we even make landfall.”

De Bussy heaved a mental sigh of relief. With de Perpignan’s connections to Monsieur Gaston, the admiral could have chosen to sacrifice him to deflect criticism. He boarded his boat and returned to the Grande Dame.

The Bahama Islands, May, 1634

The opportunities were there for the taking. Michel Mousnier leaned back in his chair at the wardroom table and surveyed his fellow leaders of the fleet. It promised to be an interesting day. What little breeze reached the room brought a hint of another warm day ahead. Admiral Duquesne had summoned the leaders to a final meeting, while the fleet took on water and finished minor repairs from the crossing. Amazingly, no ships had been lost. The only episode of note had been the death of Bishop de Perpignan. Michel smiled at that, since it removed Monsieur Gaston’s most visible supporter in the expedition as well as someone who could have upset his plans. It had the added benefit of providing an unexpected ally. Father Brussard should prove most beneficial in the plans that were unfolding. His ambition should be easily channeled. Admiral Duquesne had given every indication that he would leave all political decisions to Mousnier and Champlain, once landfall was made. The Calverts were an enigma. They had remained apart from the rest of the fleet and seemed anxious to head north. The two frigates they were taking with them would be missed, but they should settle the issues with the northern colonies. He just had to make sure the Calverts sailed soon.

That left Champlain. Samuel seemed to have regained his old vitality as they sailed west. He was like a schoolboy going to meet his first love. The warm weather did seem to be affecting him. If Champlain could just be convinced to honor his commitment to sail for Jamestown, the southern colony would be left in Michel’s care. Duquesne rapped on the table to get everyone’s attention.

“I’ll try to keep this brief. The day promises to be another hot one and the ships are just about ready to sail. I’m sure most of you have some last minute details to attend to.” He turned to Captain Villareal. “Were you able to repair that leak that was causing so much concern? I don’t want you sailing to New Amsterdam with questions on your ship’s seaworthiness.”

Michel held his breath. He’d heard of the problem and he wanted Villareal out of the way. Villareal nodded. “My carpenter located the problem. A butt joint had sprung. He’s replaced the board and its tight now.” Michel stifled a grin. With Villareal assigned to the New Amsterdam expedition, his only opposition in the fleet was now out of the picture. Villareal had made no bones that he favored Gaston.

Duquesne continued, “In that case then, we depart on the morning tide. Lord Baltimore, your ships will sail for New Amsterdam, in company with Villiers and Besancon. Once they have helped you complete your mission at New Amsterdam, they will continue on and land a garrison at Plymouth. From there, they will return directly to France.”

The two frigate captains were beaming at the news they would return home before the hurricane season. The Calverts seemed satisfied and didn’t raise any objections.

There was a knock on the door that interrupted the discussion. The admiral’s steward had brought refreshments. While he served the wine, the admiral gave the two frigate captains detailed instructions on how they were to conduct their operations. When Duquesne began to cover what was to be done with the Dutch if they didn’t leave peacefully, Champlain objected.

“Admiral, will it really be necessary to level the town? There are women and children there. Surely some accommodation can be made for those that want to stay?”

“Monsieur Champlain, you must remember that we are at war with the Dutch. If New France is to prosper, it cannot harbor enemies in its midst. We will offer transportation back to Holland on the frigates and the Ark and Dove, or they can go to the islands in the Indies. But they will go! If they choose to fight, then the consequences are on their heads. Cardinal Richelieu was very emphatic on that point. This is the one area I have no leeway in. You have a job to do in the Virginias. The last word we had there was that the settlers there were grudgingly accepting the transfer to France. I need your skills there to make the transition as peaceful as possible. Don’t you agree?”

The admiral had backed Champlain into a corner that he could not graciously back out from. Grudgingly, he accepted the admiral’s decision. It was hard for Michel to refrain from smiling. Everything had gone as he hoped. The admiral proceeded to agree to send a frigate and corvette with Champlain and his ship of Catholic settlers. The frigate would return south to the fleet after disembarking the company of soldiers it was transporting. The corvette would remain stationed there for protection against pirates and any possible rebellions by the current settlers.

Duquesne then turned to Michel. “That will leave you with two frigates and two ships with Huguenots and three ships with transportees. I will remain with your group until they are settled and then take one frigate back to France. Two will remain for protection against any Spanish attacks, unless you have another idea?”

This was the opening he had hoped for. Michel casually replied, “Would it be possible for Monsieur Champlain’s ships to travel with us to our destination? With the added manpower, I would be more confident that we could get proper fortifications erected to aid in repelling any Spanish incursions. I’m sure the delay would be no more than two or three weeks before he could continue on his way, but Louisville would be much safer for the delay.”

Duquesne looked toward Champlain, who sat there contemplating the proposal. “I see no harm in that,” he replied.

Looking around the cabin for any other comment, Duquesne finally agreed, “Very well. Monsieur Champlain will remain with the fleet until the fortifications are settled for Louisville. Lord Baltimore will proceed directly to New Amsterdam. That’s all, gentlemen. We’ll sail on the tide.”

Michel Mousnier graciously thanked Samuel Champlain for his assistance. Little did Samuel realize that he had just turned over the south of New France to Michel’s control.

****

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